What We Have Learned by Rachel Eliza Griffiths


A part of Respect Due: Symposium on the Work of Kwame Dawes

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

What We Have Learned

How easily we recover to ourselves,
never doubting for a moment
what grace is—we know grace.
All creatures caught in their squalor
know the language of purity;
its gentle hand washing away
the caking of our filth—we know this
well and give thanks for mercies.

—Kwame Dawes, “What We Have Learned

The laughter and grief of our ancestors pours through Kwame Dawes’ transformative body of work. Dawes’ grace is voracious and generous. As searing and lush as the prolific syllables he pours across our bones, Kwame Dawes welds narratives, history, imagination, justice, joy, and survival into unmitigated, lyrical truth. In the spirit of the syllables and stages he occupies, the most necessary intersections of humanity are evident, challenged, and cherished. His inalienable grasp of dignity renders him utterly visionary.

After finishing an afternoon workshop with Kwame at my first Cave Canem Retreat in 2006, I remember leaving the classroom and walking down to a small bridge on the Greensburg campus. I stared into the water beneath the bridge with a holistic understanding that Kwame Dawes had helped me see a great village, both within and beyond me. As our teacher, Dawes had challenged our workshop in deeply honest ways. He had brought us to bittersweet waters where we had to call upon ourselves, and those movements, private and public, of our history where the narrative of oppression had all but imprisoned us in invisibility and absence, in relationship to identity and craft. I had appreciated how Kwame had pushed us, knowing more about us (and our promise) than we could have comprehended at that time for ourselves, as we were so emotionally close to our pages and feelings. Kwame’s mind had leapt, dove, and flew around us, scrutinizing our fragile sheets of paper. We had to keep up and mind the pearls and brilliant salt – the pure gospel he flung over his shoulders. We also realized, shocked, that Kwame believed that we could keep up with him and that our time together would, ultimately, strengthen us as poets and citizens. During his faculty reading that week I wept and shouted in joy with other Cave Canem fellows as Kwame shared his poetry. He spoke of the world, our lives, our words, and insisted that our imaginations, our freedom mattered. Our existence, his voice encouraged, was inalienable as the songs we knew and shared.

Kwame Dawes’ joy is sacred. Anyone who has witnessed his mischievous smile, heard his full-bodied laughter, and comprehended his astute mind, which is one of the greatest of our time, understands this. You see this manifested in the excellence of his scholarship and his creative work. Looking back over the years, I think now of his signature in our correspondence – One Love – a profound musical note through which this extraordinary being lives.

As a young photographer, I met Kwame on several occasions to create portraits. I remember the respect and delight I experienced in the presence of this spirit who I had identified long ago as a fellow and kindred seer. Kwame’s ability to divine and to see past, present, and future is a gift that rings intensely in its humanity and spirituality.

The second stanza (shared above) I’ve excerpted from his astonishing poem “What We Have Learned” reveals, at best, what I’m not quite able to articulate. I think some of it concerns reclamation because Dawes’ works reclaims, recovers, remembers, names, and saves us. Richly tonal and textured, his poetic voice is a global and worldly voice, seeking to distill a proud, non-monolithic diaspora of complicated blackness that resists oppression and fear. It is this very fearlessness, wisdom, grief, kindness, and love of black peoples that has taught me so much. And, too, to be very clear, Kwame Dawes does not ever suffer a fool. Ever.

Finally, I want to pay attention to the figurative imagery of women in Dawes’ poetry. There are so many spaces his work occupies – poetry, prose, music, theater, television, editing and curating, stage, teaching, and more – but I want to end, in this brief space, with how women live in Dawes’ language. For me, I continue to appreciate and laud Dawes’ respect and understanding of the complicated narrative of women, particularly women of color, in the world and upon the page. In Dawes’ poetry, women persist in a rich music that is painterly, textured, and three-dimensional.

You can see the eyes of the women in his poetry. These eyes look and speak back, aware of their power and their vulnerability. Women fight, love, sing, die, praise, haunt, undress, resurrect, teach, collapse, make love, dance, cook, drown, betray, burn, pray, triumph, fly, defy, and speak back clearly to the poet who, one realizes immediately, has truly observed women and their interior lives. I’m thinking now of another favorite poem, “Tornado Child,” and the way the feminine form, indivisible from the natural world, undulates with both birth and devastation. Such complexity underscores a thematic refrain of Dawes’ body of work in relationship to sensuality, nature, race, gender, power and privilege, landscape, the primal and the learned, rhythms, and too, the lawlessness of wild truths. Consider this voice in “Tornado Child”: “I come like a swirl of black/ and darken up your day;/ I whip it all into my womb,/ lift you and your things,/ carry you to where you’ve never been/ and maybe, if I feel good,/ I might bring you back,/ …When the spirit takes my head,/ I hurtle into the vacuum/of white sheets billowing/ and paint a swirl of color,/ streaked with my many songs.”

Rachel Eliza Griffiths
is a poet and visual artist. Her most recent collection of poetry is Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books). Her visual and literary work has appeared widely, including The New York Times, American Poetry Review, Guernica, Apogee, Transition, and many others. Currently, Griffiths teaches creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Brooklyn.

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